Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher

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THE time is now fast approaching when people will be reckoning up the achievements of the closing century. Undoubtedly the great characteristic of the times in which we and our fathers and grandfathers have lived is the enormously rapid advance which has been made in our knowledge of the earth itself and of the forces of nature. Middle-aged people can remember the time when trains were much less frequent and rapid, the telegraph a rather expensive luxury, and when telephones were not. If they happen to have crossed the ocean in a modern “liner,” or have heard of what can be done with modern explosives, or chance to have fallen into the hands of the modern surgeon or physician armed with anæesthetics, antiseptics and hypnotics fresh from the laboratory of the synthetical chemist, they are ready to acknowledge that things are greatly changed since their young days. But it is only after the perusal of such a book as this, that the ordinary reader comes to realise that all these things are not belated inventions which ought to have been given to us sooner, but that the very foundations of all physical science were hardly laid a hundred years ago. If we try to sum up the position in 1796, we find that though some advance had been made in theoretical mechanics and dynamics, there was very little knowledge about heat, light, electricity, or chemistry. It was known, for example, that if sulphur, glass, or sealing-wax was rubbed, or bits of zinc and copper immersed in salt and water, sparks and shocks could be got out of the arrangement, but up to 1800 the phenomena of electrolysis were wholly unknown, and not till even later were the magnetic properties of the current discovered The “corpuscular” theory of light held its own till the early days of the nineteenth century, and “caloric” was still regarded as a sort of matter which could enter into chemical combinations, and could be squeezed out of bodies like water from a sponge. Chemistry at the same time was only just emerging from the disorder attending the dying struggles of the phlogistic doctrine, and even the Lavoisierian system, which had taken its place, was disfigured by many errors which could only be rectified by a long series of experiment more exact than anything which had ever before been possible.

Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher.

By T. E. Thorpe (Century Science Series) Pp. 240. (London: Cassell and Co, Ltd., 1896.)

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T., W. Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher. Nature 55, 217–218 (1897) doi:10.1038/055217a0

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